John Muir's fruit ranch is east of San Francisco. He spent 10 years there running the family business and being a family man. Muir Woods National Monument is across the bay, north of San Francisco. In spite of sharing Muir's name, the two places couldn't be more different.
John Muir's house is in rolling hills with tons of sunshine. Even in November it felt parched. Muir Woods is tucked in a deep ravine and is lush even by Pacific Northwest standards. While the house is not a particularly popular destination, the woods are so crowded a shuttle bus system and reservations will be required in 2018. Same man. Different experience.
The main Muir Woods attraction is the trail that follows the creek up the ravine. There are four bridges that cross the creek so a loop can be made as long or as short as you'd like. The "trail" itself is primarily a wooden walkway that winds through the towering coastal redwoods that are the stars of the show.
It's easy to see why John Muir was so enthralled by the redwoods. They grow in clusters and disappear into the canopy hundreds of feet above the ground. Even when one falls the roots can support "clones" that start the journey skyward again. There are several spots on the trail where a circle of mature trees stand. They once grew out of the roots of a tree that is long since gone.
Although the main trail is very crowded we found the Fern Creek trail to be almost completely deserted. We didn't have time to complete the side loop, but it was gratifying to see there's still solitude to be found in the area. After backtracking to the main trail we crossed the creek and started past a cluster of people looking at the creek.
Perhaps the number one thing you should know when visiting any wildland National Park unit is that when there are a bunch of people stopped looking off into the distance you should stop and look, too. This can result in traffic jams in places like Yellowstone where cars back up to look at buffalo or elk, but on a trail like this it just requires a step to the side.
There are no buffalo or elk in Muir Woods, but there was an owl nonchalantly sitting on a log across the creek. Occasionally, it turned its head. This seems to have been as a courtesy to viewers rather than in response to any particular external stimuli. Owls are hard to come by at home so this was a treat to see one so accommodating.
The other side of the creek climbed to a trail higher up the hillside away from the creek. Being higher gave a mid-story view into the redwoods and let us relax our necks, which had been craned upward for most of the walk to this point. There were fewer people on the high trail and almost everyone was moving in the same direction. The big attractions are along the lower trail so the return is pretty quick.
Muir Woods is justifiably crowded. It's close to San Francisco and offers a deep woods experience without much effort. Beginning in 2018, parking and shuttle reservations are required. Information is available here: https://www.nps.gov/muwo/planyourvisit/reservations.htm. Although reservations and shuttle buses complicate a visit to Muir Woods it's absolutely worth the extra planning.